Three Questions Mike Matheny Needs to Answer for the Royals in 2022

It’s been a rough offseason for Royals (and baseball) fans with this lockout.

Typically around this time in February, I am pretty enthused about producing content in preparation for Cactus League play and Royals pitchers and catchers reporting to Surprise (the Royals’ Spring headquarters).

And yet, here I am, struggling to post with any kind of frequency due to the pettiness of MLB owners, who are doing their best Logan Roy from “Succession” impressions, much to the chagrin of baseball fans everywhere.

Here’s how I imagine MLB owners are acting in negotiations whenever the MLBPA wants to negotiate anything they have presented over the past couple of weeks:

(Full disclosure: thanks to the lockout, I have gotten an HBO Max subscription and have totally leaned into “Succession” and the “Righteous Gemstones).

While it’s been a slog this offseason from a Royals blog perspective, I have been thinking about some Royals-centric things.

Lately, my mind has gravitated toward Royals manager Mike Matheny, who enters his third season as skipper in Kansas City.

Now, Matheny has done a decent job as Royals manager thus far.

Yes, the Royals have had losing seasons in his first two seasons as the Royals’ head man, but this is Kansas City, not New York or Boston. After all, Ned Yost didn’t experience his first winning season in Kansas City as skipper until his fourth-season as manager, so at the very least, Matheny has one more year to help “grow” this Royals roster on the field before he faces any kind of “heightened” expectations from “realistic” Royals fans (i.e. deliver a winning season).

That being said, Kansas City needs to see progress from Matheny in 2022, even if the postseason may still be a year away at the very least. While an increase in win total (even if it is modest) is to be expected, there are also bigger and more crucial matters that will define Matheny’s future in Kansas City beyond the 2022 campaign.

Here are three important questions that will need to be answered if Matheny wants to reaffirm to Royals fans (and honestly, the front office) that he is the right man on the bench for the Royals in both the short term as well as long term.

Let’s take a look at those three “items” next season that could define Matheny’s outlook in Kansas City after next season.

How Will Matheny Juggle the Amount of Talent in the Infield?

The Royals infield could be absolutely loaded next season, as evidenced by what is being projected on Roster Resource.

If Bobby Witt, Jr. comes out and goes gangbusters in Spring Training (however long it is) like he did in Double-A and Triple-A a season ago, it is quite possible that he could earn a starting spot in the infield on Opening Day.

However, Witt is just the tip of the iceberg for the Royals deep infield corps.

Whit Merrifield and Nicky Lopez were a dependable duo up the middle on both an offensive and defensive end in 2021, and they could once again battle for Gold Glove awards in 2022, even though they missed out a season ago.

And though Adalberto Mondesi struggled with injury a season ago, when healthy, he proved to be one of the most dynamic players on the Royals roster, which was further demonstrated by his hot start last season, which produced this tidbit below:

Mondesi spent some time at the hot corner a year ago, and he could be a fit at the position, should he stay healthy and get a full look in 2022.

Of course, the position won’t just be handed to Mondesi come Spring Training, especially considering his injury history.

It is unlikely that the Royals will move Nicky or Whit off of shortstop and second base, respectively, next season (or at least initially). That means that third base could be a battle this Spring between Mondesi and Witt (though Royals fans shouldn’t count out Emmanuel Rivera completely, as he showed some flashes last season as well).

Some Royals fans are clamoring that Dayton Moore should either trade Mondesi, or perhaps move Whit to the outfield to make room in the infield for BOTH Mondesi and Witt. However, in a chat on Fangraphs, Kevin Goldstein made a great point about the Royals’ infield glut, which Royals Review quote tweeted below:

It will be interesting to see how Matheny handles the infield situation in April and May, especially in terms of lineup construction. If he handles it right, he could help build an infield that not only could be worthwhile in 2022, but long-term as well.

However, if he buries the wrong player and overlays a subpar one?

Well, that could spell the end of Matheny’s tenure in Kansas City sooner rather than later, especially if it comes at the expense of Witt, who will be the face of the Royals franchise soon enough (not easy to do with Salvy and Whit still on this roster).

How Will Matheny Handle Hunter Dozier (especially if Carlos Santana is Still on the Roster)?

There is no question that Matheny will be in a dilemma with Hunter Dozier and Carlos Santana in 2022.

If there wasn’t a lockout, it’s plausible to think Moore would have traded Santana, which would have allowed Matheny to slide Dozier full time to first base, which is his best defensive position.

Unfortunately, the lockout probably has killed a possible Santana trade before the start of the 2022 season (and it will only get less and less likely the longer Spring Training is delayed). This means it is probable that Santana will be on this Royals roster on Opening Day, and as a result, Santana probably will be slotted in as the starting first baseman as well.

And thus, Royals fans need to know: if Dozier and Santana are back, how will Matheny handle their playing time both in the batting order and on the field?

While his overall line left some to be desired (especially after signing an extension prior to the start of 2021), Dozier was still a pretty good hitter in the second half last year (he posted a 109 wRC+ in 234 plate appearances in the second half).

In terms of offense, at 30-years-old, Dozier is what he is: he’ll have a chance to hit 20+ home runs if healthy (he wasn’t last year); he’ll hit somewhere in the .240-.260 range; and he’ll strike out a lot as well (he struck out 28.4 percent of the time last year, according to Fangraphs).

The problem with Dozier is not offensively. Rather, it is his lack of defensive versatility that makes him a challenge for this Royals roster.

His porous defense last year at third base proved that he shouldn’t be anywhere near the hot corner anymore in Kansas City (especially true with Mondesi and Witt as possible options). And while his outfield defense was better than his defense at third, he still produced plays like this against the Orioles in September which made Royals fans cringe in all kinds of frustrating ways:

Matheny could use a productive Dozier in the lineup, especially if they want to improve upon their OPS which ranked 25th in the league last season. However, he will need to find a position for Dozier in 2022 that will allow him to play everyday while not killing the Royals’ defense in the process.

Thus, if Santana struggles out of the gate, will Matheny make the tough call and bench the veteran in favor of Dozier?

Or will Matheny continue to play Dozier all over the field, even if it is detrimental defensively, while keeping Santana at first base due to “loyalty” to 36-year-old Santana, who is entering the last year of his deal in Kansas City?

Matheny will need to be creative with Dozier and Santana next season, not an easy feat considering the seasons they are coming off both offensively and defensively.

However, handling their playing situations poorly, especially in April and May, will not help Matheny’s case as Royals manager for much longer after the 2022 season.

Can Matheny Make the Tough Call with Eldred if the Pitching Struggles?

The Royals seem to be giving pitching coach Cal Eldred at least one more shot to prove that he can help lead this young starting staff to success at the Major League level. Eldred returns to the Royals coaching staff for 2022, even though the Royals rotation ranked 24th in ERA and 27th in WHIP a year ago.

Moore and the Royals front office have invested a lot in their young starting pitching and development since 2018. Hence, they cannot afford to see the Royals’ young starters, especially Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, Jackson Kowar, and Carlos Hernandez, take any steps back at the Major League level next season.

And that puts a tremendous amount of pressure on not just Eldred, but Matheny as well.

Obviously, the pressure on Eldred to see the Royals’ young starters perform in 2022 makes sense.

His role as pitching coach is to ensure that the Royals’ pitchers are succeeding at the Major League level. If they are not doing so, well…Eldred is not doing his job properly. Considering that this will be Eldred’s fifth season as pitching coach, he has had plenty of time to “prove” that his system of coaching can indeed work with the Royals staff.

The expectations will be pretty clear cut for Eldred next season. However, his future most likely will boil down to Matheny’s decision making, which could get interesting if Eldred is not able to “inspire” the Royals pitching staff early in the season.

Matheny and Eldred are close friends, stemming from their days in the Milwaukee Brewers organization together as players. While that relationship has built a tremendous amount of trust between the two, Royals have questioned if their friendship has prevented Matheny from evaluating Eldred’s performance as Royals pitching coach over the past two seasons objectively.

If the Royals are struggling on the mound, and disappointing record-wise, will Matheny make that tough decision and let his friend go? Or will Matheny continue to ride that train, even if it is slowly and obviously going off the rails?

Maybe the Royals pitching staff will finally “click” under Eldred’s tutelage this year, and Matheny won’t be put in this dilemma.

That being said, if the Royals pitching struggles, and things heat up on Eldred’s status as pitching coach, Matheny will have a crucial decision to make…

And what he decides in that situation could determine not only Eldred’s future as pitching coach, but perhaps Matheny’s own as manager in Kansas City.

Photo Credit: Elsa/Getty Images

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